The Good Patient – Marci Goodman

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My father, Allan Goodman, died in January 2012 at age 76 in Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His death certificate cited pneumonia as the primary cause, but there were other factors as well, as there usually are. What was supposed to be a voluntary week in the hospital to drain the fluid build-up from congestive heart failure and make him more comfortable turned into six weeks, a respirator, a tracheostomy, sepsis, pneumonia, and finally death. He didn’t want to die this way, but who does? His life ended as so many do: in a hospital, on life support that loved ones come to the decision to disconnect, the extent of the patient’s suffering unknown. This is not to say that my father didn’t receive excellent care from the doctors and nurses at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He did. His cardiologist even wrote my mother, sister, and me a heartfelt two-page condolence letter.

Fifteen years before his actual death he had a brush with death, a close call, which he rather miraculously survived. He’d been diagnosed with lymphoma and was due to begin chemotherapy, but before the first scheduled treatment my mother had to call 911 because he was having trouble breathing. Long story short, he had a sepsis infection and spent 10 days in intensive care on a respirator, his prognosis bleak. But he survived while another ICU patient, a younger man who’d had a severe asthma attack and stopped breathing, didn’t. We consoled that man’s wife and daughters, my uncle giving the wife a Chai necklace, Hebrew for ‘life.’

My father recovered enough to leave the hospital and start chemo but seemed altered, at least temporarily, by his near-death experience. Never one to pick up the phone unless he absolutely had to, preferring instead to let my mother represent him, he now called friends and relatives just to chat. I once answered the phone and heard a booming voice, one I didn’t immediately recognize, saying “Hello, dear, it’s daddy.” My initial response was “I think you have the wrong number,” but I quickly realized it was my father, whom I hadn’t called daddy since I was a child, and apologized.

One Sunday morning the phone rang early. Again it was my father though he normally would sleep in until at least 11 on Sundays. He had an idea to share with me: he wanted me to write his life story. His cousin’s son, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, could then write the screenplay. The person on the phone bore little resemblance to my father, who had always been on the quiet side, letting others do the talking while he listened, or pretended to, in his laidback way. Now he was animated, wanting assurance that this was a great idea that I would pursue. “Aren’t you excited? You don’t sound excited,” he said. Puzzled, I played along, told him I was indeed excited, that it was a great idea, and that I would be honored to do it. I hung up feeling that this was a passing episode, the strange behavior related to or an effect of the chemotherapy he was undergoing. Whether or not he continued to want me to write his life story, he never mentioned it again. In fact, I don’t think he ever called me again.

A few months ago, the idea of writing my father’s life story resurfaced as my sister Maura and I cleared out our parents’ bedroom in the house we grew up in, readying it for the market. My mother stayed downstairs, going through papers in the den, as we wanted to spare her a portion of the sadness and loss we knew she was feeling intensely. In my mother’s bedside night table Maura found a trove of letters my father had written to my mother when he was in the Navy; in my father’s bedside night table I found his stash of Playboy magazines from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He must have got and kept those Playboys for their deeply interesting articles. In any case, our excavation reminded me of the snooping Maura and I would do in our parents’ room when left home alone. We had seen the Playboys before, and the letters, and my mother’s copy of The Sensuous Woman by J.

Clearing out the top drawer of my father’s dresser, Maura found a small piece of paper on which my father had written a list, in two columns, of events in his life, from his early childhood up to and including the stroke he suffered in 2008, which was listed as “attack – stroke mind clarity.” I was more touched by this little paper than anything else we’d uncovered and decided to keep it, first putting it in my pocket and later my wallet, where it remains. I still wonder what prompted him to make such a list more than a decade after his phone call to me. Friends suggested that perhaps he’d been advised by doctors to do so as a post-stroke exercise, which is certainly possible but doesn’t convince me. The stroke didn’t affect his memory and the assigned exercise theory doesn’t explain why he kept this paper in a jewelry box with his valuables.

The list isn’t in exact chronological order, and much on it I can’t interpret on my own as it involved his life before I was born. But overall it tells me what was important to him, where he found meaning. The word ‘friends’ appeared more than any other on the list, six times, with ‘fun’ a close second, appearing five times. He listed the birth of his brother Stan and later his sister Lynne, the places they lived, his sadness when they moved and he had to leave his friends behind.

Allan was born in 1935 and lived in three-family houses, with his immediate family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, in Roxbury and Dorchester. The family was more poor than working class and was part of a Boston-area Jewish community that stuck closely together. His father Maurice was an immigrant, born in Russia, leaving as a young child with his family for Scotland, and ultimately emigrating to the United States and settling in Boston. From what I’ve heard he was a difficult man: depressed, a failure in every business venture he undertook. But he loved babies and favored whoever was the youngest. Allan happened to be the oldest child, and at a certain point Maurice began to pick on him, calling him names like “fatso,” which so affected Allan that it made the list: “Dad – diff names.” I remember him telling me that he had determined never to treat his own children the way his father had treated him. I also never once heard him make a disparaging remark about or to anyone.

A funny family story has Allan being sent out on a Friday to the butcher shop to buy a chicken for dinner that evening. On his way home with the chicken, he decided to join his friends in a game of stickball in the street, so he put the bag with the chicken on the hood of a parked car. When the game was finished, he went to retrieve the chicken, but it was gone, along with the car. He had to go home and admit what had happened, and whether or not the family was mad at him at the time, it later became part of the family lore.

By his own report he was an indifferent student, a daydreamer, who as a teenager would skip school to hang out at pool halls. On the list: “School – indiff daydreamer.” Under “high school” he wrote “A lot of friends. No girls,” and directly under that he wrote “Carole,” my mother’s name, with an arrow pointing to the other column. The first four items in that column are “Temple Berkie. Double dates. Drive-ins. Fun.” I thought my parents had met at a Jewish Community Center dance, but maybe it was at Temple Berkie. I do know that Allan was 18 and Carole 14 though she lied about her age, telling him she was 16 so he wouldn’t be scared off. He was her first and only serious boyfriend, and though later he enlisted in the Navy and probably had sexual adventures around the world, including Cuba, where his liaison with “Havana Ana” made the list, Carole was likely his first and only serious girlfriend. I never heard about any others.

In those early days of dating they went out with other couples—couples who also later married and remained their lifelong best friends: Cirel and Morty, Mary and Laurie, Charlie and Audrey. I know they all went to Franklin Park together because I’ve seen the black-and-white photos, including a particularly striking one of Allan in Levi’s and a white t-shirt leaning against a large cliff-like rock, Carole, long-legged in short shorts, pressed into his embrace. My caption for this photo is “sexy young couple in love.”

There are many stories about Allan’s friend David, who cheated on his girlfriend with her twin sister; who, knowing that his shy friend was working up the nerve to kiss his new girlfriend, got her to give him a blow job and then bragged about it around the neighborhood; who tapped into the telephone lines to eavesdrop on girls’ conversations. He got in trouble for statutory rape due to the parents of one of his underage conquests and had to quickly disappear into the military to avoid jail. On a double date with Allan and Carole, David and his girlfriend got into a huge fight, probably about him cheating on her, and in his rage he drove like a maniac, frightening Carole.

At some point after this period of double dates, drive-ins, and fun, Allan enlisted in the Navy with two friends. The Korean War was on, but it was nearing its end, and Allan never had to do any fighting. From his letters to Carole, it seems he traveled the world. In Rome, he went to the Sistine Chapel but never looked up at the ceiling; he didn’t know then that there was anything to see. He mentioned Paris and the Folies Bergere. And of course he was in Cuba, where he had a fling with Ana. He obviously liked her enough to have given her his home address. When his time in the Navy was up, he came back home and proposed to Carole, who accepted. Soon after, a postcard arrived from Havana, saying something like “Al, I come to Boston…” Needless to say, he didn’t respond, and if Ana ever did make it to Boston she didn’t find him, but I remember someone in the family bringing her up at the dinner table on one of the Jewish holidays. While the adults at the table laughed, thinking it was water under the bridge all these years later, Carole kept quiet and looked hurt. Though they didn’t have a commitment to be faithful to one another while Allan was in the Navy, and Carole herself dated a bit, it must still have been painful to think that there’d been another girl who’d been special to him.

After high school, Allan briefly attended art school. He didn’t stick with it, though, feeling that he wasn’t as talented or creative as his classmates. “Art school” made the list, and his self-doubt saddens me though I understand it well. His facility with drawing was helpful to me and Maura as he did most of the work whenever we had to make posters for school projects. He was careful and deliberate in his drawing, and really in all that he did.

With marriage, Allan and Carole’s adult life began, following a conventional path. Allan got a job at a print shop in Cambridge: Wright Offset Plate Company. He was a lithographer, I was told as a young child, but I had no understanding of what that meant. I remember one day he came home from work doing the box stitch with a lanyard. I asked him what he was doing and he told me it was his therapy. Long after that I thought his job involved lanyards and was called therapy.

I was born eleven months after the wedding. The newlyweds and their newborn started out in a small apartment in Brighton and then moved to a larger apartment in Mattapan, which was Maura’s first home. On the list, under “marriage” is “no money,” and under that is “Marci – Maura.” My parents struggled financially, as Allan’s salary was insufficient, and this wore on him because he was the breadwinner and Carole the homemaker. The financial burden was all his in these early years of marriage and parenthood.

Next to “no money” on the list, circled, is “depressed,” with an arrow pointing down to “fathers die,” also circled. Allan’s father, Maurice, died first, when I was a year and a half, of a heart attack. He was 52 years old. Though I have no independent memory of him I’ve been told that he adored me; I was his first grandchild, the only one he’d ever know, and I was a baby. Carole’s father, Sydney, died when I was three, also of a heart attack. He, too, was 52 years old, and I was also his first grandchild and the only one he’d ever know. At the time of his death, Carole was pregnant with Maura. Sydney, or Zayde, as I called him, I remember better—in impressionistic images—than anyone, including my parents: his bald head, his benevolent gaze, him eating a bowl of tomato soup at the kitchen table. Carole was close to him and had to have been devastated by his death.

The two decades that followed don’t appear on the list, perhaps because they were filled with the routine of work, family, and suburban living, as we had moved to the suburbs when Maura was seven months old. Certainly Allan had plenty of good times during these years—Nantasket Beach in the summer, Patriots games in the fall and winter, Saturday nights out with friends—but like most people his life was dominated by his job, which he didn’t love. When asked, he would say his job was “okay,” giving a shrug. On the list next to “work” it says “39 years 4 months,” which ended when he drove to work one Monday morning and found the print shop closed for good. No notice had been given to the workers, and for all intents and purposes Allan was forcibly retired in his early sixties, not that he minded. The industry he’d spent nearly 40 years in was dying, computers taking over.

Before that there were “weddings” on the list. I got married impulsively at City Hall in Manhattan, and my parents threw me and my then-husband a party a month or so later. Maura married her boyfriend not long after, and Allan hosted the wedding while recovering from hepatitis B, appearing jaundiced in his off-white tuxedo. Maura walked down the aisle between Allan and Carole, the three of them clinging together, holding each other up. As the video later revealed, Maura herself almost fainted, her eyes rolling back and exposing their whites.

With the exception of a childhood case of meningitis, which made the list, Allan had been healthy for most of his life. I recall hearing about him having scarlet fever, which may have been the same as the meningitis, and hallucinating snakes on the wall. But here is where illness becomes a prominent part of Allan’s story. From age 55 to his death at 76, he was intermittently struck by serious life-threatening illness, starting with the hepatitis B, contracted, we think, from a hospital procedure he underwent to relieve the phlebitis resulting from varicose veins. He developed a chronic lung condition, most likely related to the chemicals he worked with, and inhaled, daily and spent two and a half years on steroids, which helped him breathe but also weakened his immune system. While on steroids, he had a recurrence of hepatitis B and two bouts of shingles. Having had shingles myself, I can say definitively that once is more than enough. At the end of this period came his first cancer diagnosis. On the list: “55 years old – sick. Hep – lungs shingles – cancer.”

Which brings us back to the beginning: his brush with death after the lymphoma diagnosis and desire, expressed just once, for his eldest daughter to write his life story. Between the first occurrence of lymphoma and the last item on the list, the stroke, he had a recurrence of lymphoma and a diagnosis of colon cancer, whose treatment led to the stroke. And all the chemotherapy damaged his kidneys and heart and probably more. However, it wasn’t all illness all the time; he had several good years of relative health and in his own way enjoyed them to the fullest.

Under “credit” on the list is “buy – fun” and below that is “travel – debt,” followed by “fun” and the already mentioned “weddings,” followed finally by “fun – debt.” Carole was working fulltime at Macy’s, so Allan, now retired, was home alone all day. He had always been the world champion of relaxation, renowned for his ability to read the newspaper, listen to the radio, watch tv, and snore simultaneously, and now he could enjoy unfettered relaxation, along with a new hobby: home shopping. He discovered the Home Shopping Network and QVC and went on a sustained buying spree, burying him in debt but also bringing him pleasure. He bought sports memorabilia, particularly baseballs signed by many of the greats. He also bought toy cars, collectible coins, jewelry, watches, knives that weren’t for cooking, a document from the Civil War, ceramic elephants of varying sizes…I could go on. He gave me a silver dolphin ring that snapped in half when I tried to tighten it around my finger. He gave Carole fresh water pearls, not that she wanted them. He’d never been much of a gift-giver, so his generosity was touching, as was the enjoyment he got from his hobby, which is probably why we never staged an intervention. He had worked so hard all his life, he had been so ill but had fought in his quietly determined way to live, that it seemed wrong to deny him the small things he wanted.

Allan and Carole traveled during this period. They went to London and Paris; they went on a cruise through the Panama Canal; they drove down the coast of California; they went on cruises with their friends Barbara and Dario; they went to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with Maura, her husband Larry, and the grandchildren, Taylor and Dylan. On most of these trips, Allan took hours of video, as video-taping had become another hobby. I remember in particular his videos of the Panama Canal and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, which is a favorite museum of mine, too.

In early 2008, Allan had his first-ever colonoscopy, which was sadly eventful because a small malignant tumor was found. Surgery followed and then chemotherapy. By now Allan was in his early 70s and wasn’t tolerating this regimen of chemotherapy well. Ever the good patient, though, he didn’t complain. Halfway through the prescribed number of treatments, he was admitted to the hospital with stomach trouble. Carole and Maura, visiting him, noticed that something was off; he was unable to focus. He was having what turned out to be a massive hemorrhagic stroke and was brought by ambulance to Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Considering the size of the bleed, it was close to miraculous that he survived. Family gathered at the hospital, this time far fewer than had been holding a vigil for him almost 12 years earlier, as there’d been a spate of deaths in the interim: first Carole’s mother and then Allan’s in the space of two months; his uncle Harold in a freak car accident; his younger brother Stan, of cancer; Stan’s wife Marilyn, of a heart attack; his friends Laurie and Charlie, both of cancer.

On top of the stroke he had developed pneumonia, which led me to observe that doctors don’t like to use the word ‘pneumonia.’ His chest was filled with mucus that rumbled when he spoke and had to be suctioned, but when I mentioned to a doctor that it seemed like he had pneumonia her reply was “Hmmm. Maybe.” He was discharged to the first of two rehabilitation centers but soon had to be rushed to South Shore Hospital to be treated for pneumonia. Back at the rehab Allan was in good spirits and cooperative, as usual, though the stroke had left a residue of confusion. While in bed at the rehab, he variously thought he was at school, at work, at a hotel, and most poignantly stuck at a bar without a ride home. He managed, in his distress, to get someone at the rehab, a nurse or orderly, to call Carole for him, telling her he was at a bar and needed her to come pick him up. She assured him that he was at the Braintree Rehabilitation Hospital, not a bar, that he had to trust her because she would never lie to him. She promised she’d visit first thing in the morning.

At the second rehab, he made quick strides towards recovery, deciding to approach physical therapy as his job. He would even miss televised Patriots games, his beloved Patriots, in favor of more physical therapy, an attitude that made him popular among the staff. By late October, three months after the stroke, Allan was on his way home.

In November, Allan’s sister Lynne threw Carole a 70th birthday party at La Scala, the family’s favorite Italian restaurant, but the party was as much for Allan as it was for Carole. It was his post-stroke debut, and it was a smashing success. All in attendance marveled at him as he looked and sounded entirely unimpaired. It was a happy night.

Allan’s zest for living and seeming wellness persisted in the months that followed. He started driving again, against his doctor’s advice, but he felt himself capable and didn’t want to be confined to the house, dependent on Carole to chauffeur him around. Though I don’t know this for sure, it makes sense to me that he made his list in this period, the list that ended with “stroke – attack mind clarity.” He had again come close to dying and had again prevailed; reflecting on the events and people and feelings that were important to him, getting it all down, albeit in abbreviated form, was somehow called for.

Allan had made it to his and Carole’s 50th anniversary, and Maura and I gave them a celebratory brunch, at a lovely country inn, inviting close to 100 friends and relatives, most of whom showed up to honor them. It was a sunny Sunday in early April, and it truly felt like a hopeful occasion, a new beginning of sorts. It hadn’t even been a full year since the stroke, but Allan was optimistic about the future. He was also cancer-free and would never again have to contend with that disease or its treatment.

In the fall, Allan got into a minor fender-bender and decided, on his own, to stop driving. In my version of his story, this is the turning point, when the decline began. I don’t want to dwell too much on this part because it wasn’t on the list. It also was a largely miserable couple of years for Allan and Carole. However, there were bright spots, moments to cherish.

Allan had always kept himself to himself, lived inside his own head, and could at times seem withdrawn and aloof. I recall years earlier listening as, over dinner, Carole told Allan an anecdote about something that had happened to her at work that day. He offered no response, not even a grunt to indicate he’d been listening. After Allan retired to the sofa, I asked Carole, “Doesn’t that bother you?” She shrugged and said “I’m used to it.” There was no bitterness in her tone.

Now Allan seemed withdrawn and depressed much of the time. He sat on the sofa in the den, tv blaring, gazing at the screen without taking in what was happening in the program. His appetite diminished. The dosage of the anti-depressant he’d been prescribed was increased, which helped briefly and then didn’t.

In spring 2010 Allan’s flamboyant friend David died, in a kind of flamboyant way; he had congestive heart failure and had retained more than 80 pounds of fluid, so he was grotesquely bloated when Allan visited him in the hospital just before his passing. We speculate that Allan took David’s death hard, but he never shared his feelings about it.

Carole had retired from her job and was taking care of Allan fulltime, which involved keeping him on a strict no-salt diet, monitoring his weight and blood pressure daily, and making sure he took all the pills he needed each day. It was a lot of pills, and managing them was no small feat. But she had grown angry and bitter and often lashed out at him, even in public. Maura and I asked her to consider seeing a therapist, which didn’t produce a result, but when her brother-in-law Joe, Lynne’s husband, suggested an anti-depressant, she relented. This helped, for a while.

They fell together twice, first in front of Lynne and Joe’s building in Copley Square, on Passover, and then in the parking lot of a doctor’s office, causing Carole to fracture a hip, which required surgery. Both falls happened as Carole tried to catch Allan before he tripped or fainted. Though Carole had had a hand tremor for a while, she had not yet been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In fact, she wouldn’t receive the diagnosis until late 2011, just before Allan went into the hospital for the final time. Carole’s close friend, who will remain nameless in this account, told Maura confidentially that Allan cried when he heard the diagnosis.

But summer 2011 held a beautiful weekend that I am grateful for. On Saturday night of that weekend, the four Goodmans—Allan, Carole, Marci, and Maura—went to dinner by ourselves. Apparently, those who would normally accompany us had something better to do. We sat in a booth, Allan and Carole on one side, Maura and I on the other. Allan was positively vivacious that night. He smiled and laughed and was a fully engaged participant in the conversation. He ate heartily. I remember him telling me and Maura that he was the touchy-feely one, the one who wanted to hold hands and cuddle, not Carole. The next day, as Allan and Carole arrived at Maura’s for a barbecue, Allan pulled me aside and whispered, “She touched me last night.”

There is much more that didn’t make the list, which was, after all, written on one side of a tiny piece of paper, but I definitely can’t leave Angel out of the story. After refusing to even consider their children’s pleas for a pet, saying “We like animals but not in our house,” Allan and Carole somehow ended up with a cat, ironically named Angel, when Maura left home to move in with her boyfriend. Angel learned to open the refrigerator on his own, pulling and digging from underneath, and he would find his leftover Fancy Feast in there, knock the can off the shelf, and roll it to his dish. He would also serve as a centerpiece, sitting smack in the middle of the kitchen table when Allan and Carole were eating dinner, his paw slowly edging toward their plates to sample their food. They indulged this behavior, and for more than 15 years they loved and cared for Angel and he loved them, and only them, back.

One final item that also wasn’t on the list, from late in Allan’s life, is the group of men, all childhood friends, that he occasionally went out to lunch and dinner with; they called themselves the ROMEOs, an acronym for Retired-Old-Men-Eating-Out. No matter how he was feeling or what condition he was in, Allan never turned down an invitation to dine with the ROMEOs. To laugh and commiserate with old friends, to get a break from Carole’s careful monitoring of his diet and order from the menu with abandon, always raised his spirits.

After Allan’s death, a college friend, now an artist and professor, sent me a condolence card into which she had inserted a copy of a Raymond Carver poem entitled “Late Fragment,” which he must have written before dying of lung cancer at age 50. To quote the last three lines of this six-line poem: “And what did you want?/ To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ Beloved on the earth.”

Allan, Dad, whatever you wanted your life to mean, to yourself or to others, I hope in the end you felt yourself beloved. Rest in peace, dear man.

 

Marci Goodman received an MFA in English from UMass/Amherst and has published short fiction in a number of literary journals and magazines. She also edited a poetry collection titled I Dream About You Baby by the late Lester Afflick. She works at Queens College, where she is the director of a college readiness program for NYC public high school students and teaches in the English Department. A native of Boston, she has spent her adult life in NYC, specifically in Brooklyn, and considers herself a New Yorker though she still quietly roots for Boston sports teams.

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